Sunday, December 30, 2012

Django Unchained: Opinions, Reactions, Critiques and Reflections

If I were a movie reviewer, I'd describe my reaction to Django Unchained as follows: it was an intense movie with a lot of great moments, some funny, some poignant, and some satisfying in the way that a good action movie is satisfying: sudden, climactic, and cathartic. Is there a word for that? Anyway, those strengths are just enough to outweigh the fact that the film is stretched out and paced and plotted in such a way that it wears out its welcome. The theatrical violence and racism are exciting and indulgent for the first hour and a half, and the bloodbath and Candieland really tops it off, but it becomes exhausting by the time Jamie Foxx's genitals make their appearance. By the end, I was numb to the film's strengths, and honestly eager for it to end. It had already spent all its momentum by then.

This might be the rare film that's better in a home-viewing environment, rather than the theater. At home, you can let off steam by yelling at the screen, making remarks to your friends, or getting up and getting food. It would make the film feel less insistent, like it was leading you on through its twists and turns, rather than jabbing spurs into your sides and yelling in your ear. I might like to see it again, once it's out on Blu-Ray. I think it would benefit from a second viewing in a slightly different context.

Despite being overlong and sometimes toilsome, the film doesn't lack for substance, and I did detect an honest consideration of racial issues, rather than frivolous postmodern regurgitation of provocative material. Candieland is a vivid symbol for the collusion of wealth, power, violence, and tradition in the racist fabric of American history. Django himself embodies a racial fury that echoes forward (or back, I guess) through the black panthers, Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's Native Son, and a whole succession of hip-hop, jazz, slam poetry, and political discourse. Perhaps it's fitting that at the end of the film, Django has found his identity as a vengeful outlaw, rather than as a law-abiding citizen of the enlightened North.

Christoph Waltz's character is fascinating, as well, forming the third part of the Django/Calvin/Schultz triad. Schultz is the kind of immigrant that has always made the United States what it is, an idealist who's been shaped in equal parts by his native culture and by the American experience. He fights for Django's freedom, but he does so in an idealistic spirit, an enemy of the idea of slavery, as much as he is a friend and mentor to Django. His idealism is encouraging, but as the plot reveals, it is also suicidal: it acts on emotional impulses, turning minor slights and symbolic offenses into massive, bloody conflicts. If Schultz had really seen Django's agenda as his own, and had considered Broomhilda's rescue as a victory, he would have shaken Candie's hand and headed off into the sunset. His final act of defiance revealed that he was a slave to pride, not to necessity.

The discussions about race and discourse that have been occurring subsequent to the film are colorful and volatile, as should be expected. On Razor Horizon, Joel Randall hits pretty much all the beats, claiming that it's part of a long history of hip racism in Tarantino's films, revealing a perverse fascination with black Otherness. Of course, Spike Lee is the most visible opponent of the film's language, as Spike tweeted, not having yet seen the film in question.

I have a gut response to Spike Lee that I have to get out before I go on. Spike is entitled to an opinion, but is anybody entitled to such an uninformed opinion? Simultaneously nursing such a strong reaction, but also refusing to see the film, and then pronouncing a judgement via Tweet... it seems vaguely passive-aggressive and pathologically defensive to me. I would have seriously appreciated a well-reasoned critique from Spike, as provided by Joel Randall, above. It could have been a much more savage take-down than his twitchy Twitter response, had it been backed by some actual insight into the film itself. But for that, he would have to see the film, either by paying to watch it in the theater, or by requesting a promotional copy, from the studio or from Quentin himself. Or by pirating it.

So, in my search for other reactions, I get to read things like Steven Boone's interesting reaction piece in PressPlay, in which he discusses his own feelings about the N-word and his valuation of Spike Lee's career against Tarantino's. And reading the piece, and the comments, stirs up all those doubts and irresolvable confusions that discussions of race and power always seem to entail. For others, especially non-whites and non-Christians and non-cisgendered-males, but even for me, a standard-bearer of the American race/gender hegemony.

Of course, I still understand the counterpoint, the ugly scent of absurd unfairness that a film like this gives off, directed by a mass-marketed white man who often presents himself with a shrill, sanctimonious air. One of the liberal parts of me -- the part that twitches and shudders thinking of Daniel Tosh -- wants to write Boone's article off as contrived apologism that misses the emotional core of the controversy. But one of the comments defends the film in simpler terms, and I think, before it can be pronounced as vile and opportunistic, it has to be glimpsed in those terms, at least for a moment. That comment is from Bryan Hill, and the relevant section is as follows:
'The fact is that DJANGO UNCHAINED is the most expensive and most mainstream film depicting the horrors of slavery in the history of American filmmaking. It has a black hero. A black heroine. An unflinching look at violence (psychological and physical) and a bonafide superstar playing a slave owner. As a cultural achievement, it's remarkable. "Django Freeman" is the kind of black hero most black storytellers (me included) wouldn't dare to think they could get Hollywood-land to finance, and Tarantino spent his political-cultural capital to do it. In the theatre, my wife and I constantly looked at each other during the film sharing the silent sentiment: "Wow. They did this." I imagine that has to hurt Lee personally. Even with Denzel by his side, Hollywood would never finance DJANGO from him.'
For me, this is underlined, at the very least, by the fact that Django Unchained is serious and sickening at the right moments. A lot of mook deaths are played for laughs, but the physical and psychological torture of the slaves is always sobering and uncomfortable. If white people are allowed any freedom to take an unflinching look at racism and slavery and at the white cultures and institutions they've seeded -- and I'd be hard to convince otherwise, as long as progressivism still pushes us toward greater awareness of ourselves and our privilege -- then Tarantino's film deserves to be seen as an honest exploration of those issues. Tarantino and I are absolutely, irresolvably outside the black experience of history, but we have to find terms to examine it and even -- am I allowed to say this? -- relate to it. At some point, in some capacity, we have to scour that boundary between the black experience and the white experience. Blindness and disconnection from these issues, this inheritance of violence and these systemic social failures, is not an option.

If I get a chance, I may write another post about Django... specifically, about how Candie, Freeman, and Schultz form a triadic structure with some kind of symbolic or semantic weight. We'll see what I can come up with. I suppose I should watch Blazing Saddles and the original Django, huh? Factor in the most important reference points?


Muhammad S. Aadam, PhD. Edu said...

I just saw this movie and I was officially impressed! I couldn't believe how they depicted the best aspects of life back then. I like how it have a different perspective on life of Free men/ Free women. Jamie foxx played a wonderful part and Leonardo did a good job. He is definitely up and coming! It is s must see.

annie g said...

I didn't find the movie too long at all to address the prolonged violence of slavery. I loved the title's allusion to the mythic proportions of human development in the story of Prometheus ie Shelley titled his version of the Greek myth 'Prometheus Unbound' - no coincidence, surely. Prometheus is imprisoned for giving mortals the gift of fire, is cruelly imprisoned but escapes to overthrow the gods. And there is so much more to think about/respond to, all - mostly? - in Tarantino's exquisite visuals. The rhythm of those horses, start and finish...

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